There was one third down in particular, late in the third quarter against Indianapolis, on which wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster thought initially that he was open, even though he ultimately didn’t get the ball.
More than one, actually.
“Majority of the time I’m running down the field I feel like I’m open,” Smith-Schuster said following practice today. “As any receiver would say, I’m always open.
“But I think I’m pretty sure I was getting double-teamed, one over the top and one, probably, coming underneath.”
The ball ended up going elsewhere in that instance, and to Smith-Schuster just five times on Sunday afternoon.
Three of those targets occurred on the Steelers’ first possession, including one on the first play of the game.
But the third time quarterback Mason Rudolph went Smith-Schuster’s way, on offensive snap No. 6 against Indianapolis, the pass glanced off his hands and was intercepted.
He wound up with three catches for 16 yards.
And the Steelers emerged victorious, but still in search of ways to get Smith-Schuster more involved more often.
“I don’t know, just gotta throw the ball my way,” he said.
The Steelers prepare for the Week 10 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams
That might prove especially challenging this Sunday against the Rams and cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
But Smith-Schuster would welcome the opportunity to try his luck against the 2017 Associated Press First-Team All-Pro cornerback.
“When he was with the Jaguars he played a lot of man-to-man,” Smith-Schuster said. “At the Rams, when he played against (Atlanta wide receiver) Julio (Jones), he saw a lot of Julio.
“If they give me Ramsay that’s an honor, pretty cool, you know?”
Smith-Schuster was paid such individual attention in the regular-season opener at New England.
He finished with six catches on eight targets for 78 yards against Stephon Gilmore, a 2018 AP First-Team All-Pro cornerback.
“When I went against Gilmore I was kind of excited,” Smith-Schuster said. “He’s another elite corner. To have the opportunity to go against him is an honor.
“I made a couple plays here and there. He made a couple plays on me here and there.”
That might also describe how Smith-Schuster has tangibly contributed in the passing game this season.
His targets are down (from 78 to 52), as are his catches (53-33) and 100-yard receiving games (four to one) from this season compared to the first eight games a year ago.
Those numbers are representative of what’s been happening but not an accurate reflection of how Smith-Schuster has been playing, in head coach Mike Tomlin’s estimation.
“Statistics might not tell the story because of a lot of things going on around him,” Tomlin maintained this week. “I like his work. I like his professionalism. I like how he wins his 1-on-1s. Hopefully it’s a catalyst for us, in terms of getting more traction and consistently moving the ball offensively.”
That didn’t necessarily happen against Indianapolis.
But Smith-Schuster emerged more appreciative of the result than frustrated by the numbers.
“Thank God we got a huge win,” he said. “We just gotta keep stackin’ ’em.’”